20080301-Drama of Red Mansion TV dram hongloumeng2.jpg
TV drama version of Dream of Red Chamber

“The Dream of the Red Chamber” is a comedy of manners by Cao Xueqing, who is sometimes called the Chinese Tolstoy. Detailing a number of sexual trysts involving members of both the opposite sexes and the same sex, it was written in the 19th century and set in the 16th century and revolves around a young man named Jia Baoyu and his two girl cousins, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochi, who are his lovers. Lin Daiyu is the tragic figure in “Dream of Red Chamber”. Orphaned at the age of five, she goes to live with her uncle and must compete with her cousins for loverand attention. David Hawkes’ fine translation is both a faithful to original and a masterpiece of English prose. The book itself is regarded as such a masterpiece that it has been called the “book of the millennium” But despite this “ Dream of the Red Chamber” is widely ignored and virtually unknown in the west.

“Dream of the Red Chamber” is one of China’s most famous books and is regarded as one of the Chinese Four Great Classical Novels. Typical of many early novels, it was written anonymously as many authors felt it was beneath their station to be associated with dramatic novel writing. “Dream of the Red Chamber” is also known as “The Red Chamber Dreams.” “A Dream of Red Mansions (Hónglóu mèng) and “The Story of the Stone” (Shítóu jì). . The critic Anthony West called it “one of the great novels of world literature … to the Chinese as Proust is to the French or Karamazov to the Russians”. The Los Angeles Times described the book as “an artfully nuanced look at domestic life in 18th century China, placed within a philosophical and spiritual context of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.”

Michael Wood wrote in The Guardian: It is a different kind of novel from earlier Chinese classics such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Monkey [Journey to the West], the latter a vast sprawling narrative, surreal and poignant, full of songs and poems.” The Penguin version “Dream of the Red Chamber”“ runs to 2,500 pages — twice as long as War and Peace. Hard going at first because of the myriad characters (there are 40 main ones) and their (to a non-Chinese eye) difficult names. But once you are into it, it is a book into which the reader can completely immerse herself; it is like nothing else in all of literature. It is full of incredible detail of the social, cultural and spiritual life of the time. Chairman Mao claimed to have read it five times — and thought everyone else should too. Today, everyone in China knows it, partly due to the much-loved 1987 TV version. [Source: Michael Wood The Guardian, February 12, 2016]

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu

Ideas and Themes in Dream of the Red Chamber

Michael Wood wrote in The Guardian: The female characters are especially strong. As Cao himself said: “Having made an utter failure of my life, one day I found myself in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth. As I went over them in my mind’s eye one by one it suddenly came over me that those slips of girls – which is all they were then – were in every way, both morally and intellectually, superior to the ‘grave and moustachioed signor’ I am now supposed to have become. The realisation brought with it an overpowering sense of shame … And I resolved then, however unsightly my shortcomings might be, I must not, for the sake of keeping them hid, allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial.” [Source: Michael Wood The Guardian, February 12, 2016]

According to foreignercn.com: “The novel is believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring the fortunes of Cao's own family. As the author details in the first chapter, it is intended to be a memorial to the women he knew in his youth: friends, relatives and servants. The novel is remarkable not only for its huge cast of characters (most of them female) and psychological scope, but also for its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of 18th-century Chinese aristocracy. [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

The name of the main family — Baoyu — means false, fake, fictitious, deceitful or sham. Thus Cao Xueqin suggests that the novel's family is a "dream" version of his family that is a mixture of real and fake story telling. Baoyu occasionally dreams of another Baoyu, whose surname means real and true. The novel is normally called Hong Lou Meng or Hung Lou Meng, literally "Red Mansion Dream." "Red Mansion" was an idiom for the sheltered chambers where the daughters of wealthy families lived. It can also be understood as referring to a dream that Baoyu has, set in a "Red Mansion," where the fates of many of the female characters are foreshadowed. "Red" also suggests the Buddhist idea that the whole world is "red dust", merely illusory and to be shunned. Thus the novel fits in perfectly with Buddhist and Taoist beliefs that to find enlightenment, one must realize that the world is but a dream from which we must awake. The textual problems of the novel are extremely complex and have been the subject of much critical scrutiny, debate and conjecture in modern times.

Plot of Dream of the Red Chamber

“Dream of the Red Chamber” is a story of a noble family that falls from grace. According to foreignercn.com: “The novel provides a detailed, episodic record of the two branches of the Jia Clan, the Ning-guo and Rong-guo Houses, who reside in two large adjacent family compounds in the capital. Their ancestors were made Dukes, and as the novel begins the two houses remain among the most illustrious families in the capital. The novel describes the Jias' wealth and influence in great naturalistic detail, and charts the Jias' fall from the height of their prestige, following some thirty main characters and over four hundred minor ones. Eventually the Jia Clan falls into disfavor with the Emperor, and their mansions are raided and confiscated. [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

“The story's preface has supernatural Taoist and Buddhist overtones. A sentient Stone, abandoned by the Goddess Nüwa when she mended the heavens aeons ago, begs a Taoist priest and Buddhist monk to bring it to see the world, falls in love with a Crimson Pearl Flower, and then enters the mortal realm.

“The main character, Jia Baoyu, is the adolescent heir of the family, possibly a reincarnation of the Stone (although in the most reliable Jiaxu manuscript the Stone and Jia Baoyu are separate while related). The Crimson Pearl Flower is incarnated now as Baoyu's sickly cousin, the emotional Lin Daiyu. Baoyu is predestined in this life to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai. This love triangle against the backdrop of the family's declining fortunes forms the most well-known plot line in the novel.

Main Characters of Dream of the Red Chamber

According to foreignercn.com: “ Jia Baoyu: the main protagonist. The adolescent son of Jia Zheng and his wife, Lady Wang. Born with a piece of luminescent jade in his mouth, Baoyu is the heir apparent to the Rongguo line. Frowned on by his strict Confucian father, Baoyu prefers reading novels and casual literature to the Four Books basic to a classical Chinese education. Baoyu is highly intelligent, but hates the fawning bureaucrats that frequent his father's house. He shuns most men, considering them morally and spiritually inferior to women. Sensitive and compassionate, Baoyu holds the view that "girls are in essence pure as water, and men are in essence muddled as mud." Baoyu's distaste for worldly affairs and his frustrated love for his cousin Daiyu eventually cause him to become a Buddhist monk. [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

“Lin Daiyu: Jia Baoyu's first cousin and love interest. She is the daughter of Lin Ruhai, a Yangzhou scholar-official, and Lady Jia Min, Baoyu's paternal aunt. The novel proper starts in Chapter 3 with Daiyu's arrival at the Rongguo house shortly after the death of her mother. Beautiful but fragile emotionally, prone to fits of jealousy, Daiyu is nevertheless an extremely accomplished poet and musician. The novel designates her one of the "Twelve Beauties of Jinling," and describes her as a lonely, proud and ultimately tragic figure. Daiyu is the reincarnation of the Crimson Pearl Flower, and the purpose of her mortal birth is to repay her divine nurturer, reborn as Baoyu, her "debt of tears".

“Xue Baochai: Jia Baoyu's other first cousin. The only daughter of Aunt Xue, sister to Baoyu's mother, Baochai is a foil to Daiyu. Where Daiyu is unconventional and hypersensitive, Baochai is sensible, tactful and a favorite of the Jia household; a model Chinese feudal maiden. The novel describes her as a beautiful and intelligent girl, but also very reserved. Although reluctant to show the extent of her knowledge, Baochai seems to be quite learned about everything, from Buddhist teachings to how not to make a paint plate crack. Also one of the "Twelve Beauties in Jinling," Baochai has a round face, fair skin, and, some would say, a voluptuous figure in contrast to Daiyu's willowy daintiness. Baochai carries a golden locket with her which contains words given to her in childhood by a Buddhist monk. Baochai's golden locket and Baoyu's jade contain inscriptions that appear to complement one another perfectly; their marriage is seen in the book as predestined.

“Jia Yuanchun: Baoyu's elder sister by about a decade. Originally one of the ladies-in-waiting in the imperial palace, Yuanchun later becomes an Imperial Consort, having impressed the Emperor with her virtue and learning. Her illustrious position as a favorite of the Emperor marks the height of the Jia family's powers. Despite her prestigious position, Yuanchun feels imprisoned within the four walls of the imperial palace. Eventually Yuanchun's sudden death precipitates the fall of the Jia family. Included in Jinling City's Twelve Beauties.

“Jia Tanchun: Baoyu's younger half-sister, by Concubine Zhao, second wife to Jia Zheng. Brash and extremely outspoken, she is almost as capable as Wang Xifeng. Wang Xifeng herself compliments her privately, but laments that she was "born in the wrong womb," since concubine children are not respected as much as those by first wives. Tanchun is nicknamed "Rose" forher beauty and her prickly personality.

“Shi Xiangyun: Jia Baoyu's second cousin, Grandmother Jia's grand-niece. Orphaned in infancy, she grows up under her wealthy maternal uncle and aunt who use her unkindly. In spite of this Xiangyun is openhearted and cheerful. A comparatively androgynous beauty, Xiangyun looks good in men's clothes, and loves to drink and eat meat (considered masculine). She is forthright without tact, but her forgiving nature takes the sting from her casually truthful remarks. She is learned and as talented a poet as Daiyu or Baochai. She is also one of Jinling City's Twelve Beauties.

“Wang Xifeng, alias Sister Feng - Baoyu's elder Cousin-in-law, young wife to Jia Lian (who is Baoyu's paternal first cousin), niece to Lady Wang. Xifeng is hence related to Baoyu both by blood and marriage. An extremely handsome woman, Xifeng is capable, clever, amusing and at times, vicious and cruel. Undeniably the most worldly of the women in the novel, Xifeng is in charge of the daily running of the Rongguo household and wields remarkable economic as well as political power within the family. Being a favorite niece of Lady Wang, Xifeng keeps both Lady Wang and Grandmother Jia entertained with her constant jokes and amusing chatter, plays the role of the perfect filial daughter-in-law, and by pleasing Grandmother Jia, rules the entire household with an iron fist. One of the most remarkable multi-faceted personalities in the novel, Xifeng can be kind-hearted toward the poor and helpless. On the other hand, however, Xifeng can be cruel enough to kill. Her feisty personality, her loud laugh and her great beauty formed refreshing contrasts to the many frail, weak-willed beauties that plagued the literature of 18th-century China. Xifeng's name translates to "the Phoenix" - a mythical bird of authority. She is also one of Jinling City's Twelve Beauties.

Maids and Servants in Dream of the Red Chamber

According to foreignercn.com: “The names of the maids and bondservants are given in the original pinyin and in David Hawkes' translation: “Xiren ("Invading Fragrance", Aroma) - Baoyu's principle maid and his unofficial concubine. Originally the maid of the Dowager, Xiren was given to Baoyu because of her extreme loyalty toward the master she serves. Considerate and forever worrisome over Baoyu, she is the partner of his first adolescent sexual encounter during the early chapters of the novel. [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

“Ping'er (Patience) - Xifeng's chief maid and personal confidante; also concubine to Xifeng's husband, Jia Lian. The consensus among the novel's characters seem to be that Ping'er is beautiful enough to rival the mistresses in the house. Originally Xifeng's maid in the Wang household, she follows Xifeng as part of her "dowry" when Xifeng marries into the Jia household. She handles her troubles with grace, assists Xifeng capably and appears to have the respect of most of the household servants. She is also one of the very few people who can get close to Xifeng. She wields considerable power in the house as Xifeng's most trusted assistant, but uses her power sparingly and justly.

“Qingwen (Skybright) - Baoyu's other handmaiden. Brash, haughty and the most beautiful maid in the household, Qingwen is said to resemble Daiyu very strongly. Of all of Baoyu's maids, she is the only one who dares to argue with Baoyu when reprimanded, but is also extremely devoted to him. She was disdainful of Xiren's attempt to use her sexual relation with Baoyu to raise her status in the family. Lady Wang later suspected her of having an affair with Baoyu and publicly dismissed her on that account; angry at the unfair treatment and of the indignities and slanders that attended her as a result, Qingwen died shortly of an illness after leaving the Jia household.

History of Dream of Red Chamber

“Dream of the Red Chamber was written in the 1750s “by a great artist with his very lifeblood”, said the work’s English translator David Hawkes.Michael Wood wrote in The Guardian: “Cao’s story mirrors the tale of his own family. His grandfather, Cao Yin, was an imperial bondservant, an important functionary in the south, who enjoyed high favour with the emperor Kangxi. But after Kangxi died, his son began a purge of corruption and incompetence, and the family were ruined. They lost their mansion in Nanjing and moved to a modest house among the alleys of Beijing, south-east of the Forbidden City. [Source: Michael Wood The Guardian, February 12, 2016]

“So Yin’s grandson grew up in straitened circumstances, a brilliant but watchful boy, wary of all power, and never forgetting his grandad’s saying about the fickleness of fortune: “When the tree falls, the monkeys will be scattered.” He was good with the brush, both with paint and with words: but he had no aptitude for university, so he found himself down and out in his 30s, selling his paintings and working as a private teacher (he was eventually sacked for getting a maidservant pregnant.) By the end he was sleeping in barns and working in wine shops; he clearly drank too much.

“The book was written in dribs and drabs: each new chapter circulated among family and friends, often in exchange for a meal and a pitcher of wine. He died in 1763, heartbroken it is said, by the death of his only son. Dream of the Red Chamber was finally published in print in 1791, but the text is still surrounded by controversy. There is a story that it had been censored because eminent people it satirised had been too thinly disguised. It is also debated whether the text we have is all his. Different endings survive, with a writer called Gao E claiming to have published the complete version according to the author’s wishes. Gao E, who it seems fair to assume was using an unfinished draft, clearly knew what the author had planned.” But “manuscripts still turn up. Mysteries remain unsolved.

Early Versions of Dream of the Red Chamber

According to foreignercn.com: “Cao did not live to publish his novel, and only hand-copied manuscripts survived after his death until 1791, when the first printed version was published. This printed version, known as the Chenggao edition, contains edits and revisions not authorised by the author. The novel, published up till the 20th century, was anonymous. Since the twentieth century, after Hu Shi's analyses, it is generally agreed Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters of the novel.

“Up until 1791, the novel circulated merely in scribal transcripts. These early hand-copied versions end abruptly at the latest at the 80th chapter. The earlier ones furthermore contain transcribed comments and annotations from unknown commentators in red ink. These commentators' remarks reveal much about the author in person, and it is now believed some may even be members of Cao XueQin’s own family. The most prominent commentator is Rouge Inkstone, who revealed much of the interior structuring of the work and the original MS ending, now lost. These MS are the most textually reliable versions, known amongst scholars as "Rouge versions". Even amongst the some 11 independent surviving manuscripts, small differences in some characters used, rearrangements and possible rewritings made the texts vary a little from another. [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

“According to novel's first chapter, Cao Xueqin revised his novel five times and died before he had finished the fifth version. To compound this problem, parts of the latter chapters of the book were lost, so we only have 80 chapters that are definitively written by the author.

“The early 80 chapters brim with prophecies and dramatic foreshadowings which also give hints as to how the book would continue. For example, it is obvious that Lin Daiyu will eventually die in the course of the novel; that Baoyu and Baochai will marry; that Baoyu will become a monk; various characters will suffer in the snow; and that the whole estate will finally be consumed by flames. Most modern critical editions have the first 80 chapters based on the Rouge versions.

David Hawkes: Translator of Dream of the Red Chamber

Michael Wood wrote in The Guardian: “When I was a graduate student in Oxford many years ago I shared a house with a brilliant German sinologist who used to push translations my way, stroking his beard with a teasing smile: “Try this – you’ll really enjoy it.” Many visitors popped into our terraced house on Abingdon Road, and one night around the kitchen table I met a fascinating character, rangy with white hair and beard, and a twinkly eye. His name was David Hawkes. [Source: Michael Wood The Guardian, February 12, 2016]

“A gifted linguist, he had directed Japanese codebreakers in his early 20s, during the second world war. As a student at Peking University, he had been in Tiananmen Square in 1949 when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Later, as a teacher, he had done a wonderful translation of the Songs of the South, part of a poetic tradition earlier than anything that has survived in the west. Then he became professor of Chinese in Oxford, but, as he put it, “I resigned in order to devote my time to translating a Chinese novel … well, the Chinese novel”.

“The book was “Dream of the Red Chamber...Hawkes eventually completed his great endeavour with the help of his son-in-law John Minford, who finished the last two volumes of the five, which were published by Penguin between 1973 and 1986. “Hawkes’s version gives us the first 80 chapters by Cao and the last 40 redacted by Gao E. Hawkes’s translation was greeted as an introduction to “a masterpiece”, a “work of genius”, a “candidate for the Book of the Millennium”. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was given a copy of Shakespeare during his state visit to the UK, the new Chinese ambassador Fu Ying gave the queen the Hawkes translation.

Redology and Feng Qiyong

The study of the “Dream of the Red Chamber” is called “redology” and the scholars who study it are called “redologists”. Although they focus on different things they are sort of like the scholars that study James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”, and constantly come up with new discoveries and insights into the novel. Redology is a massive and still expanding field in China, with conferences, annual journals and a slew of publications.

One of the most renowned and respected Chinese redologists was Feng Qiyong, who died away at age 95 in 2017. The Global Times reported: Feng headed the team that worked on the 1982 version of the novel published by the People's Literature Publishing House. With its numerous corrections and annotations, this version remains the best-selling edition of the Chinese classic. Feng wrote more than 20 books on Chinese literature and history, as well as was the head editor for dictionaries on A Dream of Red Mansions and encyclopedias of Chinese art. [Source: Global Times, January 23, 2017]

“During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he secretly copied A Dream of Red Mansions by hand. Started in December 1967 and finishing in June the following year, this handwritten copy was published around the time of his death by the Qingdao Publishing House. "To me, this handwritten version is as precious as my own life," Feng once said.

“According to Feng's preface in his autobiography Rain and Snow: The Personal Reminiscences of Feng Qiyong published earlier this month, he survived torture during the Cultural Revolution to eventually become the head of the team editing and proofreading A Dream of Red Mansions in 1975. During his career Feng contributed to a series of significant events in the field of Redology, including the establishment of the Chinese Research Institute of Redology, the Chinese National Academy of Arts and the academic journal A Dream of Red Mansions.

“Aside from Redology, Feng also researched other Chinese literature classics, as well as art, archaeology, identification of cultural relics, painting, photography and other fields that interested him. Among them, he also made major contributions to the field of archaeology in China. One of these was the rediscovery of the remains of the route that the eminent Tang Dynasty (618-907) Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who served as inspiration for the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) masterpiece Journey to the West, once traveled on his journey back to China from India.

“The persistence with which Feng approached his studies was praised by Meng Xianshi, a professor at the School of Chinese Classic at Renmin University of China, in his review of Feng's autobiography published in the January 17 edition of the People's Daily. "Mr Feng had a hard life, but he chose not to forget these ordeals. In fact, to some degree, he was grateful to have experienced these ordeals," Meng wrote.

Dream of the Red Chamber Exhibition and Desserts

In 2019, the the National Museum of China in Beijing hosted an exhibition on “Dream of the Red Chamber” with nearly 600 items related to the beloved novel, including paintings, different editions and translated versions of the book, information on how the book came about and its status in Chinese culture. Among the highlights were the handwritten copy of the novel by Feng Qiyong and the painting Daguanyuan. According to the Global Times, “Daguanyuan, which literally means grand view garden, is the large landscaped garden built within Rongguofu, the mansion that belonged to one of the aristocratic families in the book, and is a key setting for much of the book. “The work of an anonymous Qing Dynasty painter, the painting features 173 figures and is regarded as a valuable reference for the study of the classic work. [Source: Global Times, December 22, 2019]

“In addition to learning more about the stories in the literary classic visitors can also try Dream of the Red Chamber desserts at the NMC café. Inspired by eight main female characters, the desserts are shaped after different flowers and come in flavors such as date, chestnut, passion fruit and oolong tea. In Chinese these types of desserts are known as tang guozi. “Tang guozi are not mooncakes, although they look similar,” Liao Fei, director of the NMC gastronomy center, told media at a press conference on December 12, noting that the museum hopes to bring back the skills and tradition of such baked goods by including it in the exhibition. “Tang guozi is a traditional dessert paired with tea. It originated from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), thrived during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and was later introduced to Japan,” said Liao.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: The Guardian, Global Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.